Thursday, July 23, 2009

Ireland and Spain share more of a history than you might think

ONE WAY that you know it is summer in Dublin is by the seemingly endless crowds of Spanish students which fill the streets. They come primarily to improve their English, but, nevertheless, I imagine it perplexes many a sun-starved Irishman and woman that Spaniards would leave their warm and dry homeland en masse for our rather damper shores. Of course, we Irish are only too happy to return the favour and, every year in search of the summer, travel in droves to bask in the sun-kissed avenues of Barcelona, Seville and Palermo. One would be forgiven for thinking that, aside from these summer exchanges, Ireland and Spain share few historical links. In fact, the Irish have a long history of migration to Spain, albeit for an altogether different purpose: to fight in the Spanish army.

Irish involvement in Spanish forces dates back to 1587, during the Habsburg period when Spain was almost constantly at war. Due to a demographic crisis caused by mass emigration to the Americas and epidemics such as smallpox, Spain required foreign troops to fill out the ranks of its army. These mercenaries typically came from poor or densely populated areas and both the Scottish highlands and Ireland became popular recruiting grounds. As Catholics who shared a common enemy in the English, Irish soldiers were held in high regard.

Writing to the Spanish king in 1598, Diego Brochero de Anaya extolled their virtues (if somewhat condescendingly): “that every year Your Highness should order to recruit in Ireland some Irish soldiers, who are people tough and strong, and nor the cold weather or bad food could kill them easily as they would with the Spanish, as in their island, which is much colder than this one, they are almost naked, they sleep on the floor and eat oats bread, meat and water, without drinking any wine.”

The number of Irish migrant soldiers which travelled to Spain and the Spanish Netherlands rose dramatically during the 17th century, largely due to two major events: the battle of Kinsale in 1602 and the arrival of Cromwell in Ireland in 1653. By this time, the Irish were a permanent feature of the Spanish army in Flanders, fighting the Dutch and French and helping to maintain the monarchy’s control over the Low Countries. Between 1587 and 1661, it is estimated that 6,300 Irishmen joined the army there. Uprisings in Catalonia and Portugal in 1640, however, led Spain to shift its military focus primarily to the Peninsula itself, and by 1662 the majority of Irish troops had been transferred out of Flanders to mainland Spain.

Milestone

A milestone in Irish-Spanish military affairs came in 1709 when King Felipe V decided to gather all the Irish units in the Spanish forces into a single brigade. This new brigade was made up of five regiments: the Ultonia, Hibernia, Irlanda, Limerick and Waterford. The fives regiments fought in various battles during the War of Spanish Succession, a conflict which prevented the unification of the French and Spanish kingdoms, but perhaps the most distinguished moment of any Irish regiment in Spain occurred in the Catalonian town of Gerona between 1808 and 1809.

In 1808 Napoleon had invaded Spain and put his brother on the throne. Barcelona had fallen to the French forces in February, but Gerona, 92km to the south, remained unoccupied. Despite its modest size, the city’s location between Barcelona and the French town of Perpignan meant that it threatened the lines of communication between French forces at either end. Determined to clear the route between the two hubs, General Duhesme and a force of 6,000 men attacked Gerona on June 20, 1808. The only trained troops in the city were 800 men from the Irish Ultonia regiment under the command of a Colonel Anthony O'Kelly from Roscommon. Despite being vastly outnumbered, they held the city and Duhesme’s forces were forced to retreat after incurring the loss of 700 men.

Desperate to take Gerona, Duhesme and his men regrouped and laid siege to the city again on July 24, this time with an increased force of 13,000 men. However, by this time the city’s Ultonia regiment had been joined by 1,300 light infantry from Barcelona, and, though they maintained a numerical advantage, the French were repelled yet again after a three week offensive.

The third, final and lengthiest siege was not to come for almost another year. In May of 1809, the French assembled their largest force yet at Gerona, this time under the command of a General Verdier, and began subjecting the city to heavy artillery fire. Facing Verdier by the time of the third siege were around 5,000 additional Spanish troops alongside the Ultonia regiment, all under the command of General Alvarez de Castro. The main point of attack for the French was the fort of Monjuich, Gerona’s defensive stronghold. Verdier soon breached Moujuich’s walls, but despite this, 200 Ultonia resisted two assaults on the castle and managed to hold it until August, when it finally fell.

Even though the city’s strongest point had been lost, Alvarez and his men held out for another four months. By winter, however, their situation had become desperate, with hunger, disease and relentless artillery fire all having taken their toll. Finally, on December 11th, after seven months under siege, they capitulated. Of the 800 Irish Ultonia at Gerona, only 253 survived the siege. In recognition of their bravery, King Ferdinand VII thereafter christened the regiment ‘Disinguidos de Ultonia’, until it was disbanded by the same king in 1818, allegedly due to insufficient recruits. Nonetheless, their service has not been forgotten. Today in Gerona, Irish tourists may find themselves staying at the Ultonia hotel; a quiet reminder of the heroic sacrifice made by their countrymen for the city.

5 comments:

Im Gitana! said...

this is bad-ass thanks for the info

-miranda

Fede said...

Interesting articule. I must mention three possible erratum.
Palermo is in Italy. Gerona is north of Barcelona. Montjuich dominates Barcelona.
In addiction I shall mention a hero of the Peninsular War with an irish background: Joaquín Blacke.

Again, thanks for your interesting articule. @ffedelo

Fede said...

Interesting articule. I must mention three possible erratum.
Palermo is in Italy. Gerona is north of Barcelona. Montjuich dominates Barcelona.
In addiction I shall mention a hero of the Peninsular War with an irish background: Joaquín Blacke.

Again, thanks for your interesting articule. @ffedelo

Ameno said...

Sorry to correct you but there is a hill called Montjuic in both cities Girona and Barcelona, both having a fortress. In that war, apart from Blake there were many distinguished heroes of Irish origin. The O´Donnell brothers, General Lacy. The Spanish people should always be grateful to those who fought to the death in a war that was not theirs. Glory to Ultonia Regiment, Erin go bragh

pinkbubblebath said...

Through a DNA test, I recently found out that I am 14% Irish and 3% English, which began to make sense when I discovered that my maternal great grandfather's surname was Coley, yet they lived in Cuba and had emigrated from Spain. I didn't know hot the two cultures intersected in history and this is one possible explanation. Thank you for posting this.